Letter to the Editor: Former A.S. Director Responds to Op-Ed Criticizing Lack of Guidance for A.S. Board

This is a response to Francisco Munoz’s Op-ed, “Associated Students? More like Isolated Students.”

As a preface, let me make it clear that I thought it was a well-written and thoughtful article, but I feel compelled to respond to (and elaborate on) a couple of points that I find to be particularly important.

For the sake of clear organization, I will copy and paste three central paragraphs from Mr. Munoz’s article before I write my response to them. Let us examine the following passage:

“Based on SMC's A.S. website, newly elected A.S. directors do not officially begin with their responsibilities until late August, which is usually a week prior to the semester starting. Only then are they informed of all the procedures of running their meetings and the rules they have to follow. Nowhere in the training are they updated on their individual positions' efforts, or are taught how to interpret data on student outcomes.”

This paragraph serves to expose a problem: the fact that A.S. Directors are not well prepared to carry out the responsibilities that their position entails. I can say from my experience, first as ICC Vice Chair and then as Director of Budget Management, that this is sadly true. 

But one ought to ask why this is the case. Although Mr. Munoz’s answer to this question was brought up with good intentions, it is in my humble opinion missing the real source of the problem. First of all, although it is true that A.S. Directors (excluding the student trustee, whose term begins in May) do not “officially begin their responsibilities until late August,” this does not mean that they are not “informed” about their responsibilities until then. Which brings me to the next point in Francisco Munoz’s op-ed.

“How devastating does it become when they are left to deal a yearly budget of two million dollars without being taught the proper governing skills, while carrying this eagerness to serve others?

With the demand of mandatory meetings, they are now trying to juggle representing the student body, while making sure they can hold up to the college’s expectations. Without the skills to develop programs or having an in-depth understanding of the student body, they are quickly rolling with the punches that comes with being an elected official. Attempting to juggle multiple responsibilities at the same time brings a lack in connectivity between the A.S. and the students they represent.”

As of the time I'm writing this, the election results for the 2018-2019 A.S. Board are out, meaning that we know with relative certainty who our future A.S. Directors will be. Munoz’s statement about the future Directors not being “informed” presupposes the notion that the primary responsibility of training the students befalls on somebody else than the students themselves. Munoz never specifies who should do the training, but I assume that this would be the administration, via the Associate Dean of Student Life, Dr. Nancy Grass. I have few (if any) complaints from my direct experience working with Dr. Grass, and they stem from a difference of opinion rather than a feeling that she was not there to support me throughout my position. My job dealt primarily with the approval for the disbursement of funds, and I can say with complete confidence that I found the administrators that I worked with, namely Dr. Grass, Mitch Heskel, and David Dever, to be not only incredibly smart, but also always looking out for the best interests of the students.

The main source of “official” training that student directors receive directly from the associate dean comes in the form of 36 hours of training throughout a three-day workshop shortly before the board’s first meeting. This is when the board learns basic aspects of a Director's job, from filling out a proposal to learning about the California Brown Act and the A.S. Constitution.

There are also individual meetings between the associate dean and each director, or at least there were when I was coming into my role. I found that this preparation, although quite helpful, was inadequate. What really prepared me to take over my responsibilities was closely following the work of the budget manager at the time, Samuel Ross, observing his meticulous routine and asking probing questions. When I was confused, I asked; if he could not answer something, then we sought the answer from Dr. Grass or Mitch Heskel, or whoever specialized in what we wished to know. The point is that no amount of training will fully prepare newly elected Directors for their role. However, if they have their heart in the right place, and are both willing and able to work hard, then they will do extraordinary things with the A.S.’s resources.

So, what do I have to suggest?

I think that every student who becomes a director-elect should immediately follow their current representative to learn more about their role. The Associate Dean can help by meeting with the Board-elect quickly after the A.S. elections to guide them in the basic structure of the A.S., but nothing will do more to ameliorate the directors' performance than the students themselves becoming involved in their work and investing the hours necessary to learn their job. 

I also recognize that the institutional framework of being an A.S. director is not very student-friendly (oh yes, the irony). By this I mean that there must be a reason that not a single year passes without at least one director, and often several, seeing their grades deteriorate because of the workload that A.S. demands. I am sympathetic to this problem, and I recognize that being a Director carries a significant time commitment, but I reject the idea that this emanates from not being “taught the proper governing skills.” Rather, the problem derives from a noble, but often damaging, misdirection of priorities. 

For example, directors should not have to worry about attending six or more hours of weekly meetings while they are struggling with homelessness. Neither should they have to face the decision to forgo a good grade on an important test because they feel compelled to serve their fellow students. It is unfortunate that so many students face challenges like these, but one requires sufficient introspection to know what one’s priorities are—this is a personal choice that should be decided by none except the individual bearing the consequences of those decisions. I do not mean to offer some Hobbesian quib about life being “short, nasty and brutish,” but I do want to suggest that we should try to take care of ourselves before we devote our time to optional, and incredibly demanding, pursuits like serving on the A.S. Board.

When evaluating businesses, economists like to distinguish between two different kinds of profit: accounting and economic. The former is the unambiguous deduction of costs from revenue; the latter consists of the deduction of costs from revenue as well, but it also encapsulates the ‘implicit costs,’ also known as the opportunity cost, or the profit that we would have achieved doing something else with our time. 

How does this relate to student life? Well, if we apply the concept of ‘opportunity cost’ to our life, then we can choose what really is important to us; what takes precedence in our lives and what does not. In a brilliant commencement speech at Keyton College, David Foster Wallace wrote that the real kind of freedom involves "attention and awareness and discipline." In this sense, if we really want to be free, it behooves us to know ourselves and weigh our decisions carefully. At minimum, we should strive to attain an appropriate balance between our student government responsibilities and our ordinary academic responsibilities.

In this sense, the biggest difference between Munoz and I lies in where each one of us places the primary source of responsibility. I think that the newly-elected students themselves should proactively seek the current directors for additional assistance and training, while Munoz’s piece suggests that it is SMC’s responsibility to shoulder the burden of providing additional training to their student leaders. Certainly, I share the view of Francisco Munoz that we ought to collectively cultivate, as an SMC community, a strong growth mindset. I hold the deep conviction that we should always aspire to do better. I simply think that a more effective and pragmatic way to approach this is through the individual habits and initiative of the directors.